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The theatre company putting Victorian sci-fi centre stage

The crystal egg is a portal between Victorian London and Mars.
The crystal egg is a portal between Victorian London and Mars. Photograph: Morgan Fraser PR

HG Wells hold a special place in the hearts of many sci-fi enthusiasts and scientists alike. Best known for his novels The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and The Invisible Man, Wells’s work is renowned for its prescience and has been revisited and adapted many times, so modern do some of his fears and preoccupations seem.

The Crystal Egg is a short story written 1897. Set in a grimily familiar depiction of Victorian London, it is a disturbing piece combining an almost Dickensian family-run curiosity shop, a pleasing account of scientific method and altogether more eerie references to portals into other worlds and alien beings.

As we look towards missions to Mars and search the skies for signs of life, Wells’s preoccupation with the red planet and contact, benign or otherwise, with alien intelligence seems very much to speak to our time. It seems fitting, therefore, that one London theatre company have decided to start the new year with an immersive theatre adaptation of Wells’s short story, The Crystal Egg Live.

I asked the show’s producer, Mike Archer, and director, Elif Knight to talk me through their interest in Wells, the challenges of adaptation and how Victorian sci-fi sits alongside more contemporary fiction, film and television.

What drew you to HG Wells in general and this story in particular?

Mike Archer: I have been a fan of Wells’s work since I was a boy. I encountered The Crystal Egg in 2005 and was drawn to the idea of it extending the mythos of the invasion from Mars in The War of the Worlds.

Recently, I started to feel the story had something to say about things that are happening in the world right now. When we went back to the story, myself and my partner Luisa Guerreiro thought about how we could use The Crystal Egg as an inspiration, and wanted to adapt it into an invasion story for the now.

Elif Knight: I was aware of HG Wells as a very prescient writer of science fiction. The fact that he had predicted many of the inventions and developments of the 20th century – not least manned flight and the internet – demonstrated that his imagination was not just wide-ranging but also accurate. But the question arose: how to show what an extraordinary piece of work The Crystal Egg is? And when the producers offered me the Vaults as a location, I had my answer – to recreate for the audience the atmosphere of the late nineteenth century, so that they could get a sense of how astonishing Wells’s vision was at that time.

An image from Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film version of War of the Worlds
An image from Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film version of War of the Worlds. Photograph: Allstar/Paramount

Wells articulates many fears about science and the future of civilization in his works. What does this piece say about his time or ours?

MA: I think the message that the story conveys has changed as our social attitudes have changed. Wells wrote The Crystal Egg at the height of the Victorian interest in the possibility of intelligent life on Mars, and this is what gives the story its scientific viewpoint. The alien world Wells portrays is credible and feels real, because he was able to logically specualte on the way life might develop on another world. It was a more optimistic outlook than he portrayed in The War of the Worlds so I feel he was portraying a wondrous and pleasing vision of the society he saw.

By the time of the 1950s television adaptation, the ideas had changed to something menacing. The effects of the cold war and fear of things like nuclear power, imbues the story with something more menacing. The view point had shifted from “what are they watching?” to “why are they watching?” So when it came to constructing a narrative for our adaptation, we couldn’t ignore the fact that a lot of invasion today is undertaken in a more covert manner. Just look at what is happening in the US with the Russia investigation.

EK: In a time where there was a good deal of credulity about unseen worlds, ghosts and other spirits, HG Wells was able to tap into people’s fears. He imagined an access route to Mars through a lump of crystal – in a way he preconceived the worm-hole theory of the universe where one can move from one time and place in the universe through portals in the space-time continuum.

Technology is constantly changing, and whether it’s AI or augmented reality, it’s changing our everyday lives in a way many see as threatening, because we, the foot-soldiers of life, have no control.

The play also taps into our paranoia about being watched by another entity; surveillance is a key theme and it creates the same feelings of uncertainty we experience today.

Were there any particular challenges in staging the story?

MA: Yes, several. The biggest for me, was how to honour the source material whilst making it engaging on a relatable level and feeling somewhat fresh. The book is very scientific in its vision, but that scientific vision alone doesn’t necessarily translate to a two hour show.

Denizens of the curiosity shop attempt to unlock the strange object’s secrets.
Denizens of the curiosity shop attempt to unlock the strange object’s secrets. Photograph: Morgan Fraser PR

I like sci-fi to feel real. For me the best kind is when you have a world that is recognisable and believable and sci-fi just so happens to be a part of it. I think that is where the semi-immersive nature of part of the show came from. Bringing the audience, themselves aliens in a foreign world, face-to-face with the creation of Wells. This means you have to have a believable world in which to play. We did a lot of research into the Seven Dials area, the context of the story’s creation and began to extrapolate it out.

EK: That was a challenge : to re-create the slums of Victorian London in the Vaults. For example, with a small cast we had to create a busy market day in the London of 1897. But that is where things get interesting; that’s where I have used other media and interesting sonic and filmic devices to bring the area to life.

Which sci-fibook, film or series has most influenced/impressed you and why?

MA: Honestly, it would have to be The War of the Worlds. It had such a huge impact on my imagination as a child and, even now, I still read it with the same feeling of excitement and fear. I watched the Spielberg movie, and the thing that struck me was the utterly fearsome vision of a three-legged machine laying waste to humanity – it is such a striking vision.

But I think a lot of sci-fi films in the 70’s and 80’s were genre-defining in their own right. I wanted to live in Blade Runner’s vision of LA, because it always felt so visceral and interesting – growing up within sight of the very vision that inspired the movie’s opening probably helped – but it brought a more grounded reality. They were exciting and they broke new ground.

EF: Shows like Quantum Leap, Red Dwarf and The X-Files was very much part of my childhood. But I would say Twin Peaks, which mixes several genres including sci-fi, has influenced and impressed me the most. I love the way David Lynch creates worlds within worlds.

This article titled "The theatre company putting Victorian sci-fi centre stage" was written by Tash Reith-Banks, for theguardian.com on Friday 5 January 2018 07.04pm

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